Gates in Egypt for talks on Libya conflict

AFP , Wednesday 23 Mar 2011

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates arrives in Cairo for talks on the Libyan conflict and to reaffirm US/Egypt military ties

Defense Secretary Robert Gates makes a statement to reporters with Russia's Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, not pictured, after their meeting in Moscow, Tuesday, March 22, 2011. AP

Defence Secretary Robert Gates flew into Cairo on Wednesday for talks on the Libyan conflict and to reaffirm US backing for democratic reforms in Egypt after an uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak.

His previously unannounced visit comes with US and allied aircraft enforcing a UN-mandated no-fly zone against the regime in neighbouring Libya, where rebels are fighting to overthrow ruler Moamer Gaddafi.

It also comes at a key time for Egypt, after Egyptians overwhelmingly voted in favour of constitutional amendments at an historic referendum on Saturday, paving the way for parliamentary and presidential elections within six months.

Gates is "very encouraged" that "Egypt is trending in the right direction as it transforms itself into a democratic, civilian-led government," press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters travelling with the defence chief.

In talks with his Egyptian counterpart, Hussein Tantawi, and Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, Gates was expected to give them an update on military operations in Libya and to hear Egypt's views on the crisis.

Gates is also keen to renew longstanding US military ties to Egypt and to discuss political upheaval sweeping the Middle East, said a senior defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Washington is anxious to shore up Arab support for the intervention in Libya and Gates is the second senior member of Barack Obama's administration to visit post-Mubarak Egypt, following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week.

Western leaders are now mulling their next steps with regard to the strikes after a defiant Gaddafi said that Libya is "ready for battle."

US President Barack Obama says he expects "clarity" on the future command structure of allied military operations "over the next several days" and that there has been a "significant reduction" in US military flights over Libya.

While few in the Arab world welcome any Western military intervention in the region, the bombings on Libya have not sparked the usual public protests in countries dealing with their own major political upheaval.

The Arab League, which is based in Cairo, this week got back behind the international military strikes against Libya after comments by its leader had initially indicated divisions over the campaign against Gaddafi.

Gates comes to Egypt from Moscow, where he clashed with Russian officials over the Western bombing raids.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev voiced dismay over what he called the "indiscriminate use of force" by coalition aircraft in Libya.

Gates rejected the criticism of the strikes -- which he predicted would be scaled back within days -- and later told reporters that Moscow had accepted Kadhafi's "lies" about civilian casualties.

Russia abstained from last week's UN Security Council resolution that authorised armed intervention in Libya to protect civilians.

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